Film and TV

The intriguing Nymphomaniac: Volume II offers more questions than answers

Our story resumes: Having found a love-like feeling for Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), "restful domestic comfort" has, at the outset of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Volume II, robbed the young Joe (Stacy Martin) of her orgasm. Naomi Wolf documented a similar problem in her 2012 book Vagina; the similarities between Joe and Naomi Wolf end there. For Joe, the loss appears less tied to pleasure than to identity, and so rather than seeing a pelvic-nerve man and scheduling back surgery, Joe eventually resorts to K (Jamie Bell), an elfin bloke peddling his sadistic services out of a clinically furnished office. "What do you get out of it?" the adult Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) asks before her first walloping. "That's my business," K replies darkly. "Don't ask again."

But asking again is a task central to von Trier, one he appears to acknowledge with this and other of the film's self-reflections. Gainsbourg has referred to her scenes with Bell as the most humiliating to perform, which makes sense: They are the most painfully real moments in a film layered with detachment and pretense, most obviously in its depictions of sex, which, in a Dogme-bound perversion, are neither real nor realistic. Instead, a resolve to be plain led to sex that is faked in the most elaborate way, with porn doubles, digital grafting and prosthetics. What von Trier has repeatedly referred to as "a porn film" is powered by common (if graphic) simulation, wherein each character expresses some part of the director's fractious psyche.

The conversation at the center of Nymphomaniac occurs between the adult Joe and the passerby (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her prone and beaten at the beginning of Volume I. His name, Seligman, means "blessed man" in German; it sounds more like "silly man" in Gainsbourg's airy, deceptively girlish voice. They cradle mugs of tea in Seligman's decaying guest room, surrounded by peeling, stained wallpaper, and objects — like the fishing lure in Volume I and a Christian icon here — that provide a haphazard structure for Joe's picaresque, shown in flashback, of sexual annihilation.

At issue is the quality, even the basic quantity, of Joe's soul after years of enslavement to her impulses. Joe describes an unresolvable divide between society and sexuality, and finds little dear in the human race, especially herself. Seligman claims his virginity makes him a better judge of her character; it certainly lends itself to his relentless countering of experience with knowledge. He compares teenage sex trolling to fly fishing and S&M to crucifixion; an especially esoteric bit tries Joe's patience.

But the story is not really the story here. With its dreary pan-continental setting, random chapter headings and wry self-references, Nymphomaniac is a jigsaw opus, an extended and generally exquisitely crafted riff. Story, theme and character (despite Gainsbourg's captivations) bow to Von Trier's gamesmanship, which makes his own promiscuities the film's true subject.

Of this compulsive tale of compulsion, virgins may not make the best judges — which makes its value both harder and more necessary to explain. Rather than answers, I have more questions: about a self-identified nymphomaniac (not sex addict; too bourgeois) who finds ultimate relief not in sexual agency, but story. About a director who engineers female avatars that both protect and indict him. Who also seeks in narrative the possibility of meaning, or at least respite from some more brutal, less cooperative truth.

If Joe had been a man, there would be no story, we are told. What about a hoarder, a cutter, a binge eater? Such details are not interchangeable, of course, and bear a certain dramatic recourse, one von Trier appears to at once relish and discount. What does it mean? Why make these choices, which are not random, and then insist on a world in which chaos reigns? I ask again, with pleasure.

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Michelle Orange is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.